Lessons We Can Learn From The Bloomsbury Set

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Virginia Woolf (detail; c. 1912), Vanessa Bell© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo © National Trust / Charles Thomas

They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles – here, we examine the liberal escapades and sartorial musings of the revolutionary Bloomsbury collective

As intellectual cliques go, it’s almost impossible to think of a group whose legacy is as captivating (and intriguingly glamorous) as the Bloomsbury Set. Artists, writers and philsophers including Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, John Maynard Keynes, E.M Forster, Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell all belonged to this fluid, bohemian collective that shared an abiding belief in the importance of the arts. 

Named after the leafy West London enclave in which they studied, worked and resided, the Bloomsbury Set’s early 20th century works and escapades offered a vision of the future – a dramatic liberal contrast to the buttoned-up conservatism of Victorian England. From Virginia Woolf’s feminist writings such as A Room of One’s Own to Duncan Grant’s sumptuous post-impressionist paintings via Lytton Strachey’s revolutionary character analysis in Eminent Victorians, their output is credited for ushering in a new cultural era, against the bleak backdrop of World War One and The Great Depression.

Over a century later, and their influence remains a prevailing cultural inspiration. Burberry's Christopher Bailey has created entire collections in the Bloomsbury image – employing animated brushstrokes and whimsical ruffles to louche silhouettes, while barely a year can pass by without a new film or television series mining their legendary lifestyles in some way, such as the BBC's popular Life in Squares drama, or Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works production for the Royal Ballet. With this in mind, we take heed from the chic collective, to see what lessons we can learn from their revolutionary lives... 

1. Seek out friends who encourage your intellectual curiosity
The Bloomsbury Set were friends long before any of them became successful or known for their work. While they were never a formalised group of thinkers with a set philosophy, it was their regular meetings and lively discussions which seem to have pushed them as individuals to introduce new ideas and concepts. In the beginning, Thoby Stephens and his sister Vanessa would bring their friends together on Thursday and Friday evenings at their home on Gordon Square. Think of it as a particularly rigorous form of the modern day book club. Following Thoby’s death in 1906, the group grew closer and continued to meet for years to come.

2. Happiness can flourish in the most unconventional circumstances
Besides their artistic and literary works, the Bloomsbury Set are perhaps best-remembered for their disregard for monogamous norms, instead coming to freewheeling arrangements, often adding multiple lovers to their respective marriages. Perhaps the most fabulous example of such a set-up was that of Vanessa Bell. She had married Clive Bell in1907 and had two sons with him, Julian and Quentin. She and the bisexual artist Duncan Grant became lovers and had another child, Angelica. Eventually, Vanessa and Duncan lived together with Duncan’s other lover, David Garnett while Clive Bell would visit at weekends. Their friend Roger Fry commented that, they had created "a triumph of reasonableness over the conventions."

3. Collaborate and explore your many talents
It can be difficult to describe the occupations of the Bloomsbury Set. In fact, they could almost be thought of as the predecessors of today's “slashers” (you know: Jewellery designer/ model/ DJ/ yoga teacher). What’s certain is that few members limited themselves to a single expression of their creativity, even if they are mostly remembered for being one thing. Roger Fry, for example, was renowned for his incisive abilities as an art critic, historian and curator, but is less well known for having practiced art himself – his bold, modern paintings are now part of collections at Tate and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam museum.

Collaboration was also a natural way of working for the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia and Leonard Woolf channelled their passion for discovering new writing talent into founding The Hogarth Press, which published the groundbreaking poetry of T.S Eliot, while Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant pooled their artistic talents for interior design, theatrical set and costume projects.


4. Make a country retreat a life goal
“Well it's very nice after all this sordid town life to be here again. The quiet and peace and beauty are unbelievable,” wrote Duncan Grant to Vanessa Bell in 1924. He was talking about Charleston, an idyllic country house in East Sussex, where members of the Bloomsbury Set spent much of their time and produced brilliant works. In fact, a visit to the dwelling today shows just how inspired they were by their enviornment, evidenced by the abundance of ceramics, fabrics, murals and furniture on show. 

5. Sometimes, the world will take a century or so to catch up with you
At Spring/Summer 2016 New York Fashion Week, the V-Files show opened with a collection by Westminster graduate, David Ferreira. His inspiration? Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando which explores the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman as they travel through time. Its message resonates in today’s culture of gender fluidity and exploration. In fact, it’s as if it was written for now...